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Rudyard Kipling's "The Female of the Species"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Rudyard Kipling

Introduction and Text of "The Female of the Species"

In thirteen stanzas, each consisting of two couplets, Rudyard Kipling's "The Female of the Species" describes the archetypal differences between the male and female of various species from the cobra to the human. According to Paramahansa Yogananda,

It seems there has always been a rivalry between man and woman. But they are equals; neither one is superior. . . . Man argues that woman is emotional and cannot reason, and woman complains that man cannot feel. Both are incorrect. Woman can reason, but feeling is uppermost in her nature; and man can feel, but in him reason is predominant. The ideal is to balance reason and feeling in one’s nature. ("Balancing Our Male and Female Natures")

The speaker in Kipling's poems seems to be reporting from experience or some acquired knowledge about the difference between the behavior in each situation, how the female will behave as opposed to how the male will behave. Thus immediately, the speaker states that his observation have concluded that the female are "more deadly" than the males. The differences are superficial, but they are still important on the physical level, and worth considering.

The Female of the Species

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws.
’Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man’s timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn’t his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husband, each confirms the other’s tale—
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man, a bear in most relations—worm and savage otherwise,—
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise.
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger—Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue—to the scandal of The Sex!

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same;
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells.
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate.
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unclaimed to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

She is wedded to convictions—in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies!—
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

Unprovoked and awful charges—even so the she-bear fights,
Speech that drips, corrodes, and poisons—even so the cobra bites,
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw
And the victim writhes in anguish—like the Jesuit with the squaw!

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice—which no woman understands.

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern—shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

Reading of "The Female of the Species"

Commentary

Rudyard Kipling's poem dramatizes the notion that females in all species, often thought to be demure and soft, are actually more iron-willed than their counterpart.

Stanza 1: The Bear

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

The speaker begins by claiming that if a dweller of the Himalayas happens upon a male bear and "shouts to scare the monster," the bear will "often turn aside." Not so with the female of the bear species—she will "rend[ ] the peasant tooth and nail." Therefore the speaker concludes that the "female of the species is more deadly than the male."

Stanza 2: The Cobra

When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Moving to the reptiles, the speaker again claims that the female is deadlier. If a person happens upon the male cobra, "Nag" will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid [the careless foot of man] if he can." Again, not so with Nag's female mate, who "makes no such motion."

Stanza 3: Natives

When the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws.
’Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

The speaker then reports that when the Christian missionaries encountered the "Hurons and Choctaws," the "Jesuit fathers" feared "the squaws" "not the warriors." The woman "turned the [fathers] pale."

Stanza 4: The Timid Man

Man’s timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn’t his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husband, each confirms the other’s tale—
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

In stanza 4, the speaker reports that men have to hold their tongues, because the men are "timid" and have no recourse but to suffer in silence. Even though God gave woman to man, man is not allowed to give her away.

Stanza 5: Man, as Bear

Man, a bear in most relations—worm and savage otherwise,—
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise.
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

While a man is tough in most dealings with his fellows, he is a "worm and savage" with women. A man will negotiate and compromise as necessary. About a man's behavior, the speaker asserts that the male will not push his argument to the outer limits of logic.

Stanza 6: Scandalous Nature

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger—Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue—to the scandal of The Sex!

In stanza 6, the speaker continues describing how a man will behave and what drives him: fear, foolishness, and "mirth obscene diverts his anger." A man is often assailed with "doubt and pity." And for all this, the speaker thinks man's nature is scandalous.

Stanza 7: The Ability to Focus

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same;
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

Unlike the scattershot virtue of the male, the female is focused on "one sole issue," and "every fibre of her frame" is concentrated on that issue, and that concentration makes her "deadlier than the male." But the reason for that concentration is "lest the generations fail."

Stanza 8: Propagation of the Species

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells.
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

The female takes as her purpose of being the care for her young. She has no time and inclination for doubt. She cannot be swayed by "male diversions" that inhere in argument resolution. Her one goal is clear, and she will protect her young without compromise.

Stanza 9: Power to Protect

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate.
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unclaimed to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

The power that makes the female great is her power to protect her young, which includes her relationship with the male. Even unmarried, childless women possess the same "equipment."

Stanza 10: War Against the Enemy

She is wedded to convictions—in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies!—
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

The female is "wedded to convictions" that demonstrate that "her contentions are her children," and she will fight to death anyone who disagrees with her or tries to injure those children.

Stanza 11: Throughout the Evolutionary Spectrum

Unprovoked and awful charges—even so the she-bear fights,
Speech that drips, corrodes, and poisons—even so the cobra bites,
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw
And the victim writhes in anguish—like the Jesuit with the squaw!

Despite the manner of the accost, the female will "fight," "bite," or cause "the victim [to writhe] in anguish."

Stanza 12: The Uncompromising Female

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice—which no woman understands.

Because of the uncompromising nature of the female, and because the male is a "coward," the men cannot invite women to meet with them "in council." Men, who seek justice "at war with Life and Conscience," cannot allow themselves to be distracted by females, who do not make those fine distinctions.

Stanza 13: The Inherent Differences

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern—shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

The speaker claims that both men and women know the inherent differences between them, implying that they must take steps to mollify those differences. The woman, who may be banished from the council, will always "command" if not "govern," because "[h]er instincts never fail." She will always be "more deadly than the Male."

Rudyard Kipling

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 11, 2016:

Thank you for your response, Shyron! One of my faves also. And this fine poem certainly deserves more attention.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on March 11, 2016:

Rudyard Kipling is also one of my favorite writers, I love poetry and I especially love "The Female of the Species" poem.

Thank you for bringing this to mind.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 11, 2016:

Oh, yes, Kipling was a master, for sure. His reputation has been somewhat sullied by postmodernist, left-wing loons, but that is to be expected. Thanks for the response, John!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 11, 2016:

Rudyard Kipling is one of my favourite writers, and this is perhaps his best poem. I love the reading and your commentary.